In 1950 Cosmology Reached its Peak

“Is it likely that any astonishing new developments are lying in wait for us? Is it possible that the cosmology of 500 years hence will extend as far beyond our present beliefs as our cosmology goes beyond that of Newton? It may surprise you to hear that I doubt whether this will be so. If this should appear presumptuous to you, I think you should consider what I said earlier about the observable region of the Universe. As you will remember, even with a perfect telescope we could penetrate only about twice as far into space as the new telescope at Palomar. This means that there are no new fields to be opened up by the telescopes of the future, and this is a point of no small importance in our cosmology.”

Fred Hoyle, The Nature of the Universe 1950

Now go watch this for a sense of what is going on in cosmology today:

Could he have been more spectacularly wrong? Dark matter, dark energy, the Hubble Telescope—which would peer into regions unimaginably old and distant, the cosmological background radiation, on and on the discoveries have gone. The fact is it has only taken about 50 years rather than 500 for cosmology to be further from him than he was Newton.

Hoyle was the coiner of the word “Big Bang” which he dismissively used to describe the theory that the universe began in a spectacular explosion from a singularity, now known to have been about 14 billion odd years ago.

He also did not believe in evolution.

Where did he go wrong? He misunderstood science. He wanted science to confirm to things he was unwilling to let go of. When it did not, he held onto his entrenched worldview that in the end became harmful. He refused to explore theoretical developments that did not cater to his take on things. He ignored facts and clutched at that which that had no warrant. He did not pay critical attention to the data. For example, he decided that panspermia (the idea that Earth life was seeded by life from other planets) was true and therefore any theories that did not include this were false.

The statement quoted above is rooted in his misunderstanding science in fundamental ways.

So how should members of the church respond to science?

First, recall how broad a definition of science I’ve promoted here: Science is not ‘a’ method but rather a constellation of activates, at least, in part consisting of: theory construction, logic, data collection, measurement, testing, trail & error, creativity, memory, falsification, confirmation, influence of current theory and paradigms, apprenticeships, refining technique, discussion, argument, going back to the drawing board, imagination, doubt, belief, asking questions, challenging convention, dreaming . . . and yes doing experiments where possible. Among the most important things, however, and the things that typify science more than anything else, are (a) holding all results as provisional, (b) keeping data and results open to public examination, and (c) publication only through rigorous peer review. These three things are what create the powerful self-correcting dynamic in science that has led to so many of its successes.

However, it is science’s relentless examination of the facts and no-holds-barred approach that has led to deep suspicions about science when it closely examines areas under its lens that have traditionally been the providence of faith. Some perceive science as a threat to that faith. Misunderstanding how science progresses, they see science as a monolithic megalomaniac that claims infallibility and exclusive rights to accessing the truth. I know of no scientist that would claim this. Most scientists, even deeply atheistic scientists, know there are limits to science and that truth is accessed in different ways and that there are different ways of knowing.

But for gaining access of the physical facts, processes, and laws of the universe, we know of no other way that that has been so productive. Scientists are likely protective of attempts by pseudoscience to grab the credentialing that science gives its results and you will find such attempts met with resistance. But within science itself, it is a bloody and contentious affair (as I write here in my very first MO blog!). Those things that rise to the surface are usually really really good (Like evolution).

The fact is, science is simply not a threat to our faith. Just as we have an open theology, one that has allowed new doctrines and ways of looking at the universe to unfold, I think we can be open to understanding our faith in light of the exciting things that science is disclosing to our eyes. Come. Fear not. A wondrous universe is being revealed to our view. These are exciting times and many are seeing that faith and science are not only compatible, but complement each other.

Some try to raise the warning voice of fear, that the findings of science will strip us of our faith. Not so. My faith is enhanced by evolution and the exciting findings coming forth from genetics, paleontology, anatomy, cosmology, and every science now doing research in scores of areas unknown to the scientists of just 50 years ago (take molecular biology as a profound example). You’ll notice that those who decry evolution almost always know nothing about it, and in fact, refuse to learn anything about it. And they, also, never offer alternative explanations of the myriad of data collected and analyzed by scientists. The Discovery Institute is a classic example of this with its Intelligent Design movement, which offers stunningly weak critiques of evolution, and offers nothing in return that science could tackle qua science.

Fear not. Even if evolution is true, the church is still true, despite what those who fear evolution are saying.

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14 comments to In 1950 Cosmology Reached its Peak

  • I love that video Steven. Fascinating.

  • David H Bailey

    This is a very good example of the folly of presuming that the progress of science has come to a halt. It is doubly intriguing that it came from a creationist of sorts. The quote is a good addition to some other spectacularly bad predictions, e.g.:

    1. “The grand underlying principles have been firmly established… further truths of physics are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” [Albert Michelson (first scientist to measure speed of light), 1895.]

    2. “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,”. [Attr. to T. J. Watson (CEO of IBM), circa 1945.]

    3. “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in the home.” [Ken Olen (CEO of Digital Equipment Co., now defunct), 1977.]

    It’s amusing that whereas Hoyle would have vociferously disagreed with the modern Sociology of Scientific Studies (SSK) movement, which in its more extreme forms denies that the scientific research enterprise is anything more than a social construction, nonetheless (evidently) would agree with the SSK community in denying the likelihood of any future scientific progress.

  • DHB:

    This is not quite fair to Hoyle, who promoted a rival to the Big Bang, the Steady State Theory, that basically produced enough solid peer-reviewed evidence to remain a competitive rival to the Big Bang for several decades. Until an observation of cosmic microwave background made independently of the two schools’ experimenters settled the matter, Hoyle was on solid ground.

    Actually, Einstein died still believing that quantum mechanics was fundamentally flawed.

    The self-corrective power of science lies in the competition of ideas within the entire community, not in the magnonimity of individual scientists, who can be as stubborn and opinionated as anyone else. I certainly am.

  • Firetag, true that. Hoyle, though, was unusually entrenched on a number of issues. I think the lead quote shows a lack of imagination. Critical in science.

  • Some days I feel like my fledgling career has peaked. Fallacious thinking, I trust.

  • David H Bailey

    Hoyle did some great work in his career, notably his prediction of a nuclear resonance to explain carbon nucleosynthesis. But subsequently Hoyle embraced a form of creationism, namely panspermia, and in his book “Evolution from Space”, he employed utterly fallacious probability arguments to support the theory.

    In particular, he argued that there is only a one in 10^183 probability of forming the 141-amino-acid-long human alpha hemoglobin molecule, so that if all matter on the surface of the earth had been generating random tries since creation, there is still only a fantastically low probability of it forming. But this argument is refuted a few pages later in his own book, where he shows a table showing the large number of differences in hemoglobin molecules of various animals on earth, thus showing that the essential oxygen transport function only requires a few locations to be fixed — in other words, a huge number of hemoglobin variants would also work, and human biology just happened to fix on one variant.

    Later in his career Hoyle’s writings went further off the deep end, such as his claim that intelligent life in the universe now somehow “remembers” its incarnation in the previous universe before the Big Bang, etc. It’s too bad, because he really had a great mind.

  • John Mansfield

    I’m surprised that it wasn’t mentioned that the worldview that Fred Hoyle held to was atheism. He rejected the “Big Bang” because beginnings are the stuff of myth. Still, I’m glad he rejected Big Bang, because a skeptic of Fred Hoyle’s caliber probably did more good than most proponents to get Big Bang cosmology thought out rigorously.

  • MJury

    I love the idea that what might drive further discovery even in the most ‘pure’ of scientific fields is the egos of the scientists involved. They are often the brightest individuals on our planet, and yet they still remain human like the rest of us.
    The Greats often are not unlike star athletes. While their beginnings of their careers tend to be relatively obscure but filled with incredible production, the ends seem more about disagreement and stubborn reluctance to shed closely held beliefs, and even the building of legacies over real meaning. Even in Cosmology there are ‘superstars’. I suspect I am painting an amazingly broad stroke here, but J Mansfield’s comment gave me cause to consider this thought.

  • Hoyle started an atheist, but he became a theist early on, so completely that the embraced creationism and denied evolution. He is more known for his arguing for the anthropic principle (the idea that the universe was fine tuned by God for life) than for his early atheism.

  • Yet we still have versions of the “weak anthropic principle” widely accepted today in ideas like the “landscape” of string theory, and a handful of theories that examine the possibility of a stronger anthropic principle in which we “create” the conditions in the past for our own emergence through some analogue of the “delayed choice” experiments in quantum mechanics.

    The arguments do seem to repeat among basic personal preferences among scientists.

  • John Mansfield

    Hoyle turned theist early on? I’ll have to look that up, but it seems more like something that came after he was already an established senior scientist. Young astromers don’t spend their time thinking about biology. That’s something for the later years when they have the luxury of dusting off the Ph in their PhD and musing on the nature of the universe. Also, a shift of worldview that came out of his observations is somewhat the opposite of what has been suggested—that Hoyle required interpretation of observation to conform to a fixed worldview.

    The anthropic issues with carbon nucleosynthesis seem overblown; what Hoyle did was observe that the universe contains plenty of carbon, as evidenced by a planet full of organic matter, therefore there must be a mechanism to fuse three helium nuclei. This encouraged Fowler to carefully look anew and find the necessary resonance. There were no theological issues. If any of us can make a contribution to science one-third as enduring as Hoyle’s nucleosynthesis work, we’ll have done far more than most scientists.

  • John Mansfield

    I’m curious if Francis Crick and Richard Feynman also have a place on Dr. P’s list of people who didn’t understand science. Like Hoyle, Crick had a flirtation with directed panspermia in the ’70s. Feynman wrote “We are very lucky to live in an age in which we are still making discoveries. It is like the discovery of America—you only discover it once. The age in which we live is the one in which we are discovering the fundamental laws of nature, and that day will never come again. It is very exciting, it is marvelous, but this excitement will have to go. Of course in the future there will be other interests. There will be the interest of the connection of one level of phenomena to another—phenomena in biology and so on, or, if you are talking about exploration, exploring other planets, but there not be the same things we are doing now.”

    Do Feynmann and Crick join Hoyle on the list of those who misunderstood science? If not, what was their difference?

  • John Mansfield

    From Hoyle’s autobiography Home is Where the Wind Blows: “Over the decade from 1975 to 1985, I became interested, together with my colleague and former student Chandra Wickramasinghe, in the big problem of the origin of life. We came to think that life is a cosmic phenomenon and not the outcome of a number of highly improbable events that took place locally here on the Earth.” Hoyle was born in 1915, and so he was 60 in 1975.

    Nice little blurb from John Wheeler on the back of Hoyle’s book: “No one should go without this book who wants a whiff of the excitement that can come from telling friend from foe, doing science, struggling with great questions, seeing how the Universe Works.” Wheeler was an exceptionally nice person, so maybe he was just being kind to an unimaginative failed astronomer, but I don’t think so.

  • SteveP

    Thanks John, I have a 1951 book, the one I quoted from where he seems undecided about religion, but coming down on the side of a non-religious view point. So he was not converted by that point and so you may be right about the lateness of his coming to theism.

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